(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A curious sting operation against the leader of the Austrian far right hasn’t just plunged the central European nation into a political crisis: Days before the European Parliament election, it has wreaked havoc on the continent’s nationalist right.
On Friday, Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung published reports about a six-hour conversation Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPOe), and his close ally Johann Gudenus had on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza with a woman posing as the niece of Russian oil and gas billionaire Igor Makarov. Every word was recorded, and the Austrian politicians can be seen on video discussing the possibility of the Russian woman investing in Austria’s dominant tabloid newspaper to push a far-right agenda, options for an illegal donation to FPOe through a special purpose vehicle — and a quid pro quo in the form of Austrian government contracts for the Russian. The whole thing was a set-up, and whoever organized it declined to disclose their motives when they shared the video with the two German publications.
The meeting took place in 2017, three months before the Austrian parliamentary election that put Strache in the role of kingmaker. Sebastian Kurz, the 32-year-old leader of the center-right People’s Party (OeVP), built a coalition with the FPOe, assuming the post of chancellor and making Strache vice chancellor; Gudenus became head of the FPOe parliamentary faction.
On Saturday, Strache and Gudenus resigned, and at the time of this writing, Kurz was deliberating whether to keep the coalition government alive with other FPOe politicians taking their disgraced colleagues’ places or to call a new election, as several thousand people gathered in front of his office in Vienna demanded.
The coalition’s collapse is the likelier option. Continuing to work with FPOe could do long-term damage to Kurz’s reputation, and an election can strengthen his party’s position if FPOe voters look for a cleaner alternative. Historical precedent favors such a scenario: When the previous OeVP-FPOe coalition wobbled and an early vote was called in 2002, voters defected in droves from the far-right party to the center-right one.
On the other hand, calling an end to the coalition would mean admitting that Kurz’s trademark approach to nationalist populists — working with them constructively rather than trying to boycott them and alienating their voters — was a mistake, as numerous center-left politicians in Germany and Austria were quick to declare on Saturday.
“It has long been known that right-wing populists destabilize our press freedom and democracy,” Katarina Barley, German justice minister and one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, tweeted. “Sebastian Kurz and the OeVP have paved their way into government. It’s sad that only a revelatory video alerts the conservatives to the consequences.”
Governing with the nationalists is notoriously hard for centrist parties, as, for example, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte knows from his failed cooperation experiment with anti-immigration zealot Geert Wilders. But the Austrian scandal lays bare a difficulty that goes beyond disagreeing on policy or differences of political style.
Strache’s discussion with the Russian oligarch’s fake niece shows a propensity for dirty dealing that has nothing to do with idealistic nationalism. Nationalist populists often agitate against entrenched, corrupt elites and pledge to drain various swamps. In the videos, however, Strache and Gudenus behave like true swamp creatures, savoring rumors of drug and sex scandals in Austrian politics and discussing how to create an authoritarian media machine like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s. (Encouraging the fake Russian multimillionaire to invest in the Kronen Zeitung, which reaches about a quarter of Austria’s population, would be part of such a scheme.) They also discuss taking away government contracts from a construction company owned by a businessman unsympathetic to their cause and handing them to the Russian (but only if she makes a “quality offer,” Strache qualified).
The cynicism and the implied venality are more of a problem for potential coalition partners than nationalist views because corruption scandals are contagious. In his resignation speech, Strache apologized to his wife and said that during the vodka-soaked Ibiza meeting, he’d been drunkenly trying to impress the attractive “Makarova.” His behavior on the video is consistent with this explanation — but, as the Russian saying goes, “What a sober man has on his mind, the drunk one has on his tongue.”
As one of the leaders of Austria’s center-left Social Democratic Party, Michael Schickhofer, put it on Saturday, the behavior of Strache and Gudenus is “symbolic for the European right-wing system.” “We can be sure this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he added.
Strache, as one of the few nationalist populists in government in the European Union’s wealthier member states, was an important member of the movement Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been trying to cobble together ahead of the European Parliament election that will take place next week. On Saturday, he was supposed to attend a Salvini-led rally in Milan with other like-minded politicians from across Europe. Instead, he was in Vienna apologizing to his wife and to Kurz and protesting pitifully that he’d been the victim of a “political assassination” — a poisonous rain on the Italian right-winger’s parade.
Strache was also close to the leaders of Germany’s nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. When the Ibiza story broke on Friday, they didn’t immediately realize what was happening. Christian Lueth, press spokesman for the AfD’s parliament faction, tweeted that this was a “pseudo-scandal” created by “pitiful” Der Spiegel; he has since deleted the tweet. Making common cause with someone like Strache is toxic even for the AfD now.
This leaves the European far right in disarray and plays into the hands of centrist and leftist forces ahead of next week’s election. Salvini’s unifying effort has been thoroughly undermined, and eastern European nationalists such as Orban and the leaders of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party must be congratulating themselves on not going along with it even before the scandal broke.
Kurz, who is only 32, has also suffered a serious setback. He may have been too ambitious adequately to assess the risks of working with someone like Strache, and that hardly helps his credibility as a political boy wonder who can punch far above Austria’s weight in European politics.
The Ibiza scandal, however, will not cease to be intriguing even after all the political dust settles. Who hatched the plot and had the wherewithal to go through with the sting is not a trivial question. Strache — who at one point in the meeting got the feeling it was a trap and shared it with Gudenus, only to be reassured — blames foreign intelligence services. In any case, someone shrewd and resourceful wanted to bring Strache down — but who and why is something worth investigating.
To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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